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Should we be 'happy'?

The Monks of New Skete wrote: "It's totally unreasonable to believe that God would make any intelligent being except for its happiness. Only a theologian could think up such a thing. No, happiness is ours for the taking. And we have to take it.

But what is meant by happiness? There are surely different kinds, and different people would report that different things make them "happy."

Joseph Epstein said, "The good life has a great deal to do with contentment and satisfaction – and nothing whatsoever to do with that fool’s gold called happiness." But what is contentment and satisfaction? Where do they come from? An article in The Week in 2013 referred to research that suggests that they come from helping others:

Human beings appear to be genetically engineered to be happiest and healthiest when we spend a lot of time selflessly helping others – and unhealthy when we're mostly devoted to self-gratification. That's the eye-opening conclusion of University of North Carolina researchers, based on a study of 80 volunteers. The study subjects were asked how often they felt hedonic pleasure – the kind of happiness brought about by enjoying a tasty meal or buying themselves something. They were also asked how often they contributed something important to society that gave them a deeper sense of purpose. The researchers then drew the subjects' blood, and found that the genes of the volunteers whose lives contained lots of pleasure but little meaning were priming cells to express high levels of inflammation – which is linked to cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease – and a weaker anti-viral response to infections. 'Their daily activities provide short-term happiness yet result in negative physical consequences long-term,' psychophysiologist Barbara Frederickson tells People who emphasize service to others and a connection to community, on the other hand, showed a pattern of gene expression linked to less inflammation and stronger immunity. There are two distinct kinds of happiness, says study co-author Steven Cole, and 'our genes can tell the difference.'

It is also possible to find value even in things that do not make anyone "happy" by any common definition. Thomas Mann: "Is not life in itself a thing of goodness, irrespective of whether the course it takes for us can be called a 'happy' one?"


The Monks of New Skete. In the Spirit of Happiness. New York: Little, Brown, and Co. 1999. p 309.

Essayist Joseph Epstein, quoted in The Wall Street Journal. The Week, May 2, 2014. p. 15.

"A genetic guide to true happiness." The Week, Sept. 13, 2013. p. 24.

Author Thomas Mann, quoted in the Wall Street Journal, quoted in The Week, Sept. 13, 2013. p. 21.


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